THE UNSQUARE CELLAR:
BANFF’S HANGOUT FOR HIPPIES
By Ben Bradley
In Volume 2 of the Canadian Rockies Annual, we flash back over forty years to explore a decade of change and innovation in our largest feature article, Rockies Life in the ’70s. In this companion web piece, historian Ben Bradley uncovers the story of the Unsquare Cellar and how it came to be closely associated with Banff’s burgeoning counterculture.
The Unsquare Cellar was a youth drop-in centre and “coffeehouse ministry” located in the basement of Rundle Memorial United Church in Banff. Established in 1965, it ran for seven summers and became an important hub of local youth culture.
Initially, it was intended to provide a safe, inexpensive venue where the 1000+ young adults who came to work each summer could socialize and relax during their spare time. One of its slogans was, “If you don’t know anyone, you soon will.” For a 50-cent annual membership, it offered tea, coffee, movies and live folk music to all; discussions about ethics and contemporary issues for those who were interested; and informal counselling for those in need – but no active proselytizing, even though it was run by student ministers.
Kitty-corner to the lawns of Central Park – a favourite hangout for hippies and transients – the Unsquare Cellar also came to be closely associated with Banff’s burgeoning counterculture. Rightly or wrongly, it was a flashpoint for community concern about all kinds of freaky behaviour, drawing criticism from merchants, the press, the Banff Advisory Council, and even members of Rundle Memorial’s congregation. Early on, the church was able to resist these gusts of complaint. Reverend John Travis recalled being asked to “ban the bare-feet, sandals, and long-haired crowd [but] I resolutely refused to ban certain ‘types.’”
However, the Unsquare Cellar was swept up in the tidal wave of hitchhiking hippies that inundated Banff in 1970 and 1971. Drugs, shoplifting, and defiance of small-town convention turned local sentiment strongly against all things hippie. Cellar staff’s informal connections with the Echo Creek campground and Drug Crisis Centre did not help distance it from these newer institutions. The Cellar also lost a big chunk of its clientele in 1970 when Alberta lowered its legal drinking age from 21 to 19, which allowed many young adults to socialize and relax in local drinking holes. In 1971 the total number of visits was less than half the 21,000 of 1969.
The Unsquare Cellar ultimately proved too much trouble for Rundle Memorial’s small congregation, and was not reopened after summer 1971.
Ben Bradley is a historian of western Canada and author of the forthcoming British Columbia by the Road: Car Culture and the Making of a Modern Landscape.